• 155-year-old mousetrap, on display in the Museum of English Rural Life, claims its latest victim.
  • The Helgo Treasure, from Viking Age Sweden, includes a bronze Irish crozier, a Coptic ladle, and a bronze Buddha from the Indian subcontinent – a testament to how much Vikings were plugged into early medieval trading networks.
  • Related: a Viking woman was buried with a ring reading “For Allah.”

The Importance of History

According to the National Post, the logo for BoltBus, a recently-founded Greyhound subsidiary, has caused a bit of a stir, because it is a little too reminiscent of the insigne of the Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists. From Wikipedia, the respective designs:



It’s not quite the same (different shade of blue, and the bolt is slightly different), but it goes to show that you should probably pay attention to these things. But as the article says:

BoltBus has likely steered clear of any fascist associations for the simple fact that they are a bus company—a sector that traditionally has very little in common with far-right politics.

“If this was, say, the logo for the British Columbia Bolt of Truth Party, then I think the danger of making the connection is stronger,” he said.

And indeed, the logo does not seem to have hurt BoltBus’ fortunes.

Launched just before the 2008 financial crisis, BoltBus has gradually expanded its reach across the U.S. and Canada, and has presided over a decisive turnaround in North American bus ridership.

“We felt the lightning bolt as a logo fit the name of the brand,” wrote Gipson.

Lightning is a “quick burst of energy,” she said, and BoltBus is a “quick, energetic and fun mode of transportation.”

As for the fascist connotations, in eight years the similarities have only been noticed by the occasional history or design blogger. Said Gipson, “we have heard from only a few about the logo’s resemblance.”

Entirely by accident, it seems, BoltBus has joined a small but growing movement to reclaim other “stolen” symbols of 20th century fascism.

Very interesting. I don’t think that we’re quite ready to “reclaim” the swastika, however! That one has been ruined for some time to come…

Another Arctic Discovery

Hot on the heels of the discovery of one of the ships of the ill-fated Franklin expedition, the NOAA has announced the discovery of two nineteenth-century whaling ships on the north shore of Alaska. From the National Post:

Two whaling wrecks (worth $33M in today’s U.S. dollars) found off Alaska

When the ice opened for the last time, the local inhabitants urged the ships’ captains to get out before it returned and trapped the whalers against the northwest coast of Alaska for the deadly Arctic winter.

It was September, late in the season, but the wind had always kept an escape channel open that time of year. Plus, the whaling was finally going well. The Yankee skippers decided to wait.

It was a poor decision, which could have claimed hundreds of lives.

On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that it had discovered the wrecks of two of the 32 ships that were crushed by the ice that late summer of 1871 in one of the 19th century’s worst whaling disasters.

More than 1,200 mariners and their families barely escaped in small whale boats through narrow and rapidly closing channels in the ice to reach rescue ships 130 kilometres away, according to NOAA and old newspaper reports.

But the trapped whalers, many of which were owned by merchants of New Bedford, Massachusetts, were destroyed, ruining the owners financially and damaging the 19th century whaling industry, NOAA said.

The loss of the ships equalled about $33 million in today’s dollars, Brad Barr, the project’s co-director, said Wednesday.

The vessels, with names such as Concordia, Eugenia and Minerva, were left behind in the ice with their American flags flying upside down, a sign of distress, according to an old account in the New York Times.

NOAA said the discoveries, near Wainwright, Alaska, were made possible, in part, because climate change had melted ice in the area and made wreck sites more accessible to archaeologists.

Barr said that scientists had gone to the remote shores of the stormy Chukchi Sea, above the Arctic Circle, in August aboard a chartered research vessel.

He said experts used state-of-the-art sensing techniques to locate underwater remains of the wooden ships, anchors and tell-tale implements carried by whaling ships of the 1800s.

Among other items, the researchers found the iron braces, or “knees,” that supported the brick box in which the huge iron “try pots” boiled blubber into whale oil.

The finds provided a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten era in seafaring history.

More at the link.


Hawaiian Fur Traders

At a lunchtime conversation today a colleague brought up a tidbit that he had learned: that “Canuck,” as a slang term for Canadian, came from the Hawaiian word for “person.” How on earth could such a word come into North American usage? It’s (currently) not on the Wikipedia page for “Canuck”, but one does find it on the Talk page:

Many moons ago, in Canada’s formative years when fur trading was all the rage, the fur trading companies searched for anybody they could hire who could wield a beaver trap. In the far west of Canada at that time, there weren’t a lot of crowds. There were several Hawaiian islanders who came to the western shores of North America… They worked out just fine. The Hawaiian word for “Hawaiian person” (or just a “person”) is “KANAKA”… [this eventually] became “Canuck.”

This etymology is derided by the next contributor as unreliable, and the main entry asserts that the word’s origins are uncertain. And yet, in the Wikipedia entry on “Hawaii,” we read that:

James Cook named the archipelago as the Sandwich Islands in honor of his sponsor. Cook published the islands’ location and rendered the native name as Owyhee. This spelling lives on in Owyhee County, Idaho. It was named after three native Hawaiian members of a trapping party who went missing in that area.

Furthermore, in the Northwest Hawai’i Times, we read about the City of Kalama, Washington, named after John Kalama from Maui. It also claims that:

Hawaiians had a big impact in the early history of the Pacific Northwest. Have you heard of the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon, or the Owyhee Lake and the town of Owyhee in Nevada, or the river and town of Kalama and even the town of Friday Harbor? These were named after “Kanakas,” otherwise known as Sandwich Islanders, or Hawaiians.

In the voyages of discovery in the late 1700s and early 1800s, ship captains found the Sandwich (named by James Cook for his benefactor, the Earl of Sandwich) or Hawaiian Islands a great port of call and quickly found the value of the “Owyhees.” This is why many Hawaiians became regularly employed on both merchant and whaling ships.

The first Hawaiians were recruited in 1811 by the North West Company, twelve for ship deckhands and twelve to work in the fur trade brigades. Part of their value was in their canoeing and swimming skills. The French Voygeurs had great canoe handling skills but could not swim. When a canoe flipped, everything would be lost, often even the men. But with Owyhees along, there would be excellent swimmers to save men and recover goods from the bottom of rivers. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) which merged with the rival North West Company, decided, as a “safety device,” to put an Owyhee in every canoe with the French Voyageurs.

During the fur trapping era, Hawaiians made many trips into the interior, to Fort Spokane and beyond to the Grand Tetons. This is how Owyhee and other Hawaiian names were attached to a number of interior geographic features such as rivers, lakes and even mountain ranges.

Interesting – I had no idea!


Book Review

Sehepunkte is on the verge of publishing another one of my reviews, of Stephen Justice, Adam Usk’s Secret (Penn, 2015). The link takes you to the preview site (UPDATE 11/20: it’s now officially published.) 

Something annoying happened in the course of writing this review. Two editions of Usk’s chronicle have been published, one by Edward Maunde Thompson in 1876, and another by Chris Given-Wilson in 1997. I ordered both of these through interlibrary loan and, once I returned them, thought that I should buy Given-Wilson’s for my collection. I discovered a copy for a very reasonable price being offered on Amazon by Big River Books of Powder Springs, Georgia. Once it arrived I discovered just why it was so cheap: it was stolen property! It had clearly been checked out of Burling Library at Grinnell College and not returned. The bookplate, card pocket, bar code were all there, with no indication that it had been deaccessioned. Grinnell confirmed that it was indeed theirs; Big River Books claimed that they bought it fair and square from a USPS undeliverable mail auction. But assuming that story is true, surely any reputable bookseller should have be able to perceive instantly what I perceived when I got the book. So my recommendation to you: avoid Big River Books!

(I returned it to Grinnell. Amazon – not BRB – reimbursed me for it.)

Here is a graphic from the cover of Thompson’s edition, of the badge that Usk adopted for himself: a naked man digging in a black field, in Justice’s words a “fallen Adam condemned to labor in a world that has faded to black.”



From my friend Scott Meacham, an interesting blog post about a Guinness advertising campaign from the 1930s. Like Paul de Man’s wartime writing, Hugo Boss’s manufacturing of the SS uniform, or Dr. Seuss’s anti-Japanese cartoons, this is one that interested parties would like to downplay:

There are some images that are just wrong: uncanny, creepy. One of them is a poster of a smiling, steel-helmeted Nazi-era German soldier holding a pint of stout, with the words in Gothic script: “Es ist Zeit für ein Guinneß!” What makes this poster even weirder is that it’s by John Gilroy, the artist who produced so much classic Guinness advertising imagery, from the flying toucans with glasses of Guinness on their beaks to the Guinness drinker carrying the huge girder. Even people born decades after those ad campaigns ended know the posters.

The German soldier saying: “Time for a Guinness!” is one of a number of images Gilroy produced in 1936 for the advertising agency SH Benson in connection with a campaign in Germany that never went ahead. Today those putative posters look – well – naïve. Guinness-bearing toucans flying over a swastika-draped Berlin Olympics stadium? More Guinness toucans flying escort to a swastika-decorated airship? “Guinness for strength” demonstrated by a mechanic lifting a German army half-track single-handed? Guinness toucans zooming past the Brandenberg Gate, as a man who looks like the Guinness zoo keeper dressed in what appears to be the uniform of the SS Feldgendarmerie stares up, alarmed? (Bizarrely, these were the very first use of the “flying toucans” image, which did not appear in Britain until 1955, and the famous “toucans over the RAF aerodrome” poster.)

They all appear in a fascinating new book by David Hughes, Gilroy was Good for Guinness, which features a mass of material from the SH Benson archive in London that mysteriously vanished in 1971 and, just as mysteriously, semi-surfaced in the United States a few years ago, when canvases from the archive started appearing on the art market.

Click on the link to see these remarkable images.

Medieval Coconuts

I was pleased to read this article by my friend Kathleen Kennedy, on The Mary Sue:

Coconuts in Medieval England Weren’t as Rare as Monty Python and the Holy Grail Made You Think

Allow us to get medieval on you.

Forty years old this year, the coconut sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail may be one of the most iconic opening scenes in film history. The pillar of chivalry, Arthur, King of the Britons, appears riding an imaginary horse like a child on a playground. His faithful servant, Patsy, accompanies him, banging two coconut halves together to make the sound of the horse’s hooves. Arthur and Patsy are very, very serious about their quest. They are the only ones who are.

The whole scene concentrates on those coconuts. The put-upon straight-man of the film, Arthur, gamely tries to explain the existence of coconuts in medieval England (“they could have been carried”). The grail remains all but forgotten as the guards on the castle walls uproariously tear down his explanations. (“Are you suggesting that coconuts migrate?”)

The coconut sketch unpacks the work of comedy. Comedy points out what can’t be commented on, the unspoken, and even the unspeakable. The Emperor’s nakedness is eternally comedic. Monty Python’s coconuts are horses, except that they absolutely are not horses, but coconuts. Worse, they’re coconuts, but coconuts cannot exist in Arthur’s medieval England.

These impossible coconut-horses literally echo throughout the movie, and so does the sketch, as before he is forced to examine a witch, Sir Bedevere attempts to fly a coconut-laden swallow. Audiences are left in stitches and thoroughly convinced of the impossibility of coconuts existing in medieval England.

Except medieval England was lousy with coconuts. No, really, and Monty Python may well have known it.

They’re Oxbridge men, after all, and several Oxford and Cambridge colleges still preserve coconuts given to them in the fifteenth century. Here’s a fifteenth-century coconut cup that came to Oxford more recently. While parts of it were added more recently, the original elements are medieval. This is the only medieval English coconut cup currently displayed online, and it shows how the shell was strapped into a goblet form using a harness of silver or gold. The English continued to make coconut cups after the medieval period—in the sixteenth century, seventeenth century, and beyond. They were numerous enough that by the fifteenth century, individual households might boast several coconut cups. One humble esquire highlighted the prestige of these cups when he willed his coconut cup to his heir in tail male, just like the Bennett estate in Pride and Prejudice or the Crawley estate in Downton Abbey.

More at the link.



I recently read Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc. His quotation of John Masefield’s poem “Cargoes” (1903) brought a smile to my face, as I remembered it from high school. It also acts as a highly condensed Western Civ. sequence! Here it is in full:

QUINQUIREME of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Given the artistic and cultural taste of my high school English teacher, who was always lamenting the decline of society, I think we were supposed to take this poem at face value. But now I take the opposite view. Despite Masefield’s tendentious description of the coaster as dirty and salt-caked (what, no dirt or salt-stains before the twentieth century?), “butting” along with cheap (and dull-colored) cargo, I praise the industrial capitalism that it represents! The coal, iron-ware and tin trays are consumer goods that even people like you and me can buy, because they are mass-produced and inexpensive. No, they aren’t “inspiring” like sandalwood or topazes, but what sort of people would have been able to buy these things, in either the ancient or early-modern worlds? Very rich people, if they were for sale at all and not simply shipped straight to the court to adorn and flatter the ruler. The British coaster, by contrast, would represent thousands of such ships, bringing useful products to market. Such products would also have been produced by people paid for their labor, and not slaves, as were found in the Assyrian or Spanish colonies. So to me the poem doesn’t represent the decline of civilization, but its improvement.

Moreover, now that I am older, and a little better versed in history, certain errors are apparent. The first three words, for instance, introduce an anachronism: Nineveh is in modern-day northern Iraq, but I assume that in the poem it stands in for the Assyrian Empire, which flourished in the three centuries before the Medes and the Babylonians destroyed it in 612 BC. (Nineveh was not rebuilt; its ruins were discovered and excavated by Henry Layard in the nineteenth century.) But the quinquireme was invented by Dionysus of Syracuse in 399 BC, presumably an improvement on the Athenian trireme with its three rows of oars. Furthermore, the quinquireme was a warship, not a cargo ship! All those oars meant that the sailors were packed in like sardines, with little space left to transport anything. As for the cargo, King Solomon, who did live in Palestine, did receive tribute roughly matching the list in the first stanza of the poem from “Ophir,” wherever that was. But in the second stanza, where does the galleon’s cargo come from? The ship is sailing from the Isthmus (of Panama, I assume). It’s carrying cinnamon, a product of Asia, but that may have been brought from the Philippines by one of the Manila galleons. Emeralds come from Mexico (Cortez acquired a bunch), as do topazes, but Mexico is not known for diamonds, and amethysts come largely from Brazil, which was Portuguese. Also Portuguese was the moirdore – were the Spanish incapable of doing their own smelting?

This is why I think that this poem is ironic. It is suggesting that the past always looks better than the present, but it’s an illusion. We remember what we want to remember, and it’s often the best that survives anyway – but the haziness of recall should tip us off that all might not be as it seems.